Rajesh K. Jha
We live in an age of hashtags. Every great idea must be capable of being expressed succinctly and fully in the form of hashtags and its exposition in no more than 140 characters. The latest in the series of hashtags that have started to hover in the twitter space and beginning to ensnare the netizens is #OneNationOneElection. The idea enjoys great support among the high and the mighty today and slowly it has started being debated among the emerging intellectual elite of the country. Indeed, they find the idea seductive and promising, another of those revolutionary and ‘game-changing’ ideas which have started appearing with alarming regularity these days. One is tempted to extend the evocative simile of Marx as quoted by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his article in the Indian Express today (http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/demonetisation-currency-rs-5001000-notes-ban-demonetisation-effects-debate-its-permanent-revolution-4395371/). The country is entering into the phase of ‘permanent revolution’ and the idea of ‘One Nation, One Election’ constitutes part of this revolutionary process.
Nobody should be surprised if this idea also gets wide public support which can be substantiated by polls on newspaper websites and apps of various colours and hues. These platforms in the opaque world of internet opinion barometers are emerging as substitutes for ‘wasteful’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘unnecessary’ forms of public opinion as captured in elections and other forms of measuring public mood. One can clearly see a gradual build up of public opinion, aided and strengthened by political ideology from the right that looks at democracy and its attendant paraphernalia such as elections as unnecessary or at best ‘necessary evil’ which must be minimised and kept in control.
Majority of the Indian middle class today finds the Singaporean model of ‘authoritarian democracy’ to be a far more alluring form of social and political system than the inefficient and slow Indian democratic model. Who amongst us has not heard stories of how big fine is imposed on throwing chewing gums on the streets of Singapore and nourished a secret desire to see the same in Delhi or Mumbai too? One can endlessly debate whether ideals like clean cities, trains running on time, tax abiding citizenry, high GDP growth rate are to be preferred over nebulous and often problematic ideas like public participation, social justice, equitable development and space for democratic dissent. But the fact remains that a democratic system like India is inherently inefficient owing to its complexity and multiplicity of objectives to be achieved many of which are difficult to quantify. However it would be wrong to assume that an economically ‘inefficient’ system is always preferable to an efficient system. It all depends on what values one puts on economic and other objectives a country should pursue.
It is in this context that we can start understanding the agenda for ‘One Nation, One Election’. Holding of simultaneous elections for the state assemblies and the Parliament is supposed to cut down on expenditure of both the political parties as well as the government. In one go, the entire country would go to poll. Deployment of officials and functionaries by the Election Commission and state machinery could be done, candidates from political parties would synergise their campaign with ‘star campaigners’ making a pitch for both the candidates in the same meeting. Multiple advantages are claimed to accrue to all the stake holders in this process.
There is yet another very important ‘advantage’ of this process, which is not articulated so openly. It comes into play after the election is over and government has been formed at the centre and in the states. The present system of having elections in the states, panchayats, municipal bodies and other democratic institutions scattered over various points of time acts as a brake on the functioning of the government. The ‘model code of conduct’ which prohibits governments from taking up new projects after the announcement of election is a small component of this process. It has to do with the fact that each assembly or even Panchayat election is seen as some kind of a reflection or comment on the central government and the state government concerned. Hyped by the media, blown up by rival political parties, these elections work as a real drag on the pursuits of the government so far as ‘big’ policy issues are concerned. Hypothetically, a land bill may get derailed, a GST reform may have to be put on back burner on the back of an unfavourable election result in a state. This could be a major cause of worry for the political establishment that is solely and obsessively concerned with pushing up economic growth in the country.
The idea of having simultaneous election for the assemblies and parliament itself has many big flaws and problems that render it unpractical within the current framework of constitution. Let us look at some of the figures. According to one estimate prepared by Centre for Media Studies (CMS) (http://www.ndtv.com/elections-news/rs-30-000-crore-to-be-spent-on-lok-sabha-polls-study-554110) , the total expenditure for the 14th Lok Sabha elections was in the range of Rs. 30,000 crore out of which the share of government expenditure was Rs.7000- 8000 crore. Assuming a similar figure for state assembly elections, one could possibly arrive at a figure of Rs. 60,000 crore spent on the elections conducted both for the state assemblies and the parliament. Government’s share in this could come up to around 16,000 crore. Allowing for inflation and under reporting etc., the total figure could go up to Rs. 80,000 crore overall and Rs. 20,000 crore for the government. Even if simultaneous elections are held, one could imagine a saving which could never exceed more than 50 percent of the total or a net reduction of about Rs. 40,000 crore in total including Rs. 15,000 crore for the government. Spread over 5 years, this is not such a big figure that could warrant simultaneous elections for purely economic reasons.
Now, imagine a situation that happened in Arunachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand. If a state government falls, for whatever reason, what would be the option? Nobody would suggest holding parliamentary elections in such an eventuality. Will the centre rule the state for the remaining period of its stipulated time? Will there be some other alternative arrangement made to run the administration of the state? How would this affect the centre-state relations in a federal structure that India has adopted?
Think of a situation when the central government itself falls. There have been instances in the past when governments at the centre have lost their majority mid-way and elections had to be announced. Will it mean that in such an eventuality, all the state assemblies will also be dissolved and elections held simultaneously?
Clearly, for this system to succeed, presupposes a Presidential form of government or at least an assured term for the government at the centre as also in the states. One could catch the drift of the debate on this issue by looking at the possibilities enumerated above. All of this requires reworking India’s constitution to allow for a system with far more centralisation of power and far less checks and balances on the executive as envisaged in the constitution. Since Bob Dylan is the flavour of the season, one can quote him and say ‘the answer my friend is blowing in the wind!’
The spirit of Indian constitution lies in the elaborate system of checks and balances worked out both at the formal and informal levels through its various institutions. The plethora of elections starting from the municipal and panchayat levels up to the parliament level ensures that the feedback of real public opinion, as opposed to app-based public opinion surveys, and the mood of the public is transmitted to the elected representatives in both states and the centre. At one level this works as real time check on any outlandish, authoritarian idea that may be taking shape in the minds of the law makers and on the other it allows for course correction in the dynamic process of policy formulation by the government.
The rough and tumble of the political process in India may not be as sexy and seductive as offered by technology and executed by tech-savvy IIT trained, Harvard returned technocrats but it holds the government under tight leash, should it waver and get carried away in its own hubris. Invoking the subaltern wisdom, one can say it is the लोकलाज (loosely translated as deference to the wishes of the people) which is the core, the vital force of a democratic system. The more we weaken these channels of transmission of the feedback to the government, the weaker democratic system becomes.
Those who believe that interest based opinion polls are any substitute for elections have a very shallow and superficial understanding of the democratic process. Despite elections in India being contaminated by the play of money, muscle and now to a great extent partisan media, they serve a very important purpose in the political education of the society. Each rally or street corner meeting that takes place during elections also lets people understand the vital issues relating to governance, economic policy and socio-cultural significance in their own language, shorn of jargon and technicalities of academic discussions. Elections are as much important for the process involved as they are for reflecting people’s preferences. It is silly to look at elections only as a means to arrive at a ‘result’ in terms of who wins or who loses an elections. Its l heart and soul lies in creating an informed citizenry which is politically aware and nuanced in expressing its preferences. Internet based opinion polls are a poor substitute for the rich and varied benefits of elections in terms of their impact in deepening democracy substantially.
What worries one most is the tantalising closeness of the slogan #One-Nation-One-Election to #One-Nation-No-Election, especially if it is couched in the language of public good-efficiency, and economic growth. Now that more than 90 percent of the people are willing to bear pain for the nation (even if on an app), it is quite possible that they may agree to even sacrifice their love for democracy and other outdated values such as personal freedom and equity!
The virus of ‘permanent revolution’ is incubated in the heady wine of sacrifice for nation as embodied these days in the form of standing in ques or a little earlier in abusing a certain university or even earlier for killing human beings in the name of an animal and so on.
Let us hope that the time for the idea of #OneNationOneElection never comes and democracy continues to survive and thrive in the dirt lanes of villages, slums and colonies of small cities and big towns.
I much prefer the acrid smell of sweat coming from the voter standing in long ques in Saharsa, Nagarcoil, Anantnag, Teju and Sangam Vihar in Delhi frequently and regularly and in large numbers than the Armani fragrance of a neat election held as infrequently as could possibly the government decide.